I gave this interview sitting in bed at 9 in the morning to a South African Islamic radio station. I wouldn’t call myself a ‘former Zionist’ really, though I suppose I did write that in this blog’s ‘About’ section…
This week’s Palestinian Freedom Rides will resemble those of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. As the American Jewish community was widely supportive of the Civil Rights movement, the event serves as an opportunity for American Jews to reflect on Israel’s system of segregration–a system that it opposed in the United States.
Rabbi Dresner and another American rabbi being arrested during the African-American Civil Rights Movement
The Palestinian Freedom Rides, which are set to begin on Tuesday, will seek to replicate those of the African-American Civil Rights movement. Palestinian youth activist and organizer Fadi Quran explains, “this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides in the US. Apart from disrupting the segregation and challenging the oppression imposed on us by Israel, we chose this form of direct action to highlight the similarities between the Palestinian struggle and the [African American] civil rights movement to an American audience.”
Despite the similiarities, there are crucial differences between the Freedom Rides that were held in America during the 1960s and those that will take place this week in the West Bank. Those who participated in the American Freedom Rides were United States citizens who sought to reform the country’s discriminatory policies. The Palestinian Freedom Rides, on the other hand, is a people’s attempt to assert their rights in the face of a foreign military occupation. While the African-Americans sought merely to level the playing field with their white oppressors, it can hardly be said that West Bank Palestinians simply demand equal access to settler roads and buses. They seek to call attention to and dismantle an inherently oppressive system.
The event also holds potential for the American Jewish community–which was, by and large, supportive of the African-American Civil Rights movement–to reflect on the segregation the Jewish state enforces in their name.
Rabbi Israel “Si” Dresner was a white, Jewish-American Reform Rabbi who joined the 1960s Freedom Rides as part of the ‘Interfaith Riders’, a group of black and white clergymen and rabbis who became known as the ‘Tallahassee Ten’ after their arrest for attempting to desegregate an airport restaurant in Tallahassee, Florida.
“I became a ‘dove’ in the few years after the Six Day War”, says Dresner. “By 1970 I had already realized that the occupation was a disaster.”
Dresner was arrested in the 1970s for marching on behalf of the refuseniks, and has been an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians since the early 1980s.
“As long as they remain nonviolent”, he says about the new Palestinian Freedom Rides, “I’m all in favor of this…there are major differences [between the two Freedom Rides] of course…[but] the occupation has led to a buildup of hatred in Israel, the kind of hatred we call racist hatred- the kind that says ‘all Arabs are bad, all Palestinians are terrorists’…so the occupation has been a disaster for Israelis and for Palestinians.”
Nonetheless, following a typical path of ‘soft’ liberal criticism of Israel, he prays essentially for the reform of what he believes to be an originally and ultimately morally just state. “I love Israel,” he reassured the Jewish Week in an article published in May 2011. “I’ve been there 36 times. I was married there. Israel means a great deal to me, and I just feel that their policies are self-destructive.”
Dresner, who today sits on the Executive Board of Meretz USA, told Rabbis for Human Rights in 2010 that “I’ve been a dues-paying, card-carrying Zionist for 68 years, and Zionism today has been corrupted and corroded…we have to correct it, we have to reform it to change the annexationist policies…”
Dresner is not the only Jewish American Freedom Rider who would come to question Zionism. Henry Schwarzschild became a civil rights lawyer and activist who publicly declared himself Israel’s enemy after the 1982 siege of Beirut.
Freedom Rides will protest Apartheid. (Alternativenews.org)
On Tuesday, November 15, Palestinian youth activists in the West Bank, along with Israeli and international activists, will reenact the U.S. Civil Rights Movement’s historic Freedom Rides through the American South, boarding segregated Israeli public transportation headed from the West Bank to East Jerusalem in an act of civil disobedience which attempts to highlight the apartheid policies of the Israeli occupation.
In the words of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, “Israelis suffer almost no limitations on their freedom of movement in the occupied Palestinian territory, and are even allowed to settle in it, contrary to international law. Palestinians, in contrast, are not allowed to enter Israel without procuring a special permit from Israeli authorities. Even Palestinian movement inside the Occupied Territories is heavily restricted…while it is not officially forbidden for Palestinians to use Israeli public transportation in the West Bank, these lines are effectively segregated, since many of them pass through Jewish-only settlements, to which Palestinian entry is prohibited by a military decree.”
The Palestinian Freedom Rides has tethered itself very tenuously to an event in the past, and has thereby taken a stand in a historical legacy that leaves itself highly open to interpretation. Says Palestinian youth activist and organizer Fadi Quran, “this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides in the US. Apart from disrupting the segregation and challenging the oppression imposed on us by Israel, we chose this form of direct action to highlight the similarities between the Palestinian struggle and the civil rights movement to an American audience.”
What strand of resistance ties the Freedom Rides of then to the Freedom Rides of now? The Freedom Rides through 1960s segregated America were staged by citizens of a country in protest of its apartheid policies, while the Palestinian Freedom Rides will assert the rights of a sovereign people under foreign military occupation. Nonetheless, apartheid is apartheid, no matter where it rears its ugly head. To examine the link between the two movements, and shed light on the bridge of historical development that separates them, we may ask- what are the 1960s Freedom Riders’ views on the Palestinian struggle?
John Lewis, the son of Alabama tenant farmers, joined the Freedom Rides when he was 19- “he rode to Birmingham with the Nashville cohort, endured the angry mob in Montgomery, was arrested in Jackson and served jail time at Mississippi’s Parchman State Prison Farm”. He is now serving his 12th term representing Georgia as a Democrat in the House of Representatives. On January 20, 2002, in the midst of the Second Intifada and two months before Operation Defensive Shield (and, coincidentally, on the 20th anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s democratic election to the Presidency of the Palestinian National Council), the San Fransisco Chronicle published an op-ed piece by Lewis called ‘‘“I have a dream” for peace in the Middle East- Martin Luther King Jr.’s special bond with Israel’, in which Lewis emphasized Dr. King’s fervent belief that, as ‘one of the great outposts of democracy in the world…peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality’. Lewis continued-
[King] consistently reiterated his stand on the Israel- Arab conflict, stating “Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is uncontestable.” It was no accident that King emphasized “security” in his statements on the Middle East…During the recent U.N. Conference on Racism held in Durban, South Africa, we were all shocked by the attacks on Jews, Israel and Zionism. The United States of America stood up against these vicious attacks.
Attempts were made at this September 2001 conference to draft legislation accusing Israel of racist policies towards the Palestinian people, and after four days of negotiations the United States, Israel and Canada withdrew. In this op-ed, Lewis clearly intends to drive home the message, as he states in the opening paragraph, that King, who “sought ways to achieve liberation and peace…thus understood that a special relationship exists between African Americans and American Jews. This message was true in his time and is true today.” Thus, in a manner similar to Israel’s ‘pinkwashing’ campaign, Lewis attempts to use his and Dr. King’s civil rights credentials to block criticism of Israel’s right to military ‘security’ as a persecuted state, and to suggest, paradoxically, that anyone who dares accuse Israel of racism is butting up against Dr. King himself (the assertion of King’s Zionism, by the way, is questionable). Lewis equates the African-American struggle against persecution not with the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, but with the history of Jewish oppression that Israel carves into the wrathful sword of its state.
Henry Schwarzschild, who fled from Berlin to the U.S. in 1939 at the age of 14 and was executive of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in the 1950s, was arrested as a Freedom Rider in Jackson, Mississippi in 1961. Once he was released, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote on his imprisonment forms, “Your courageous willingness to go to jail for freedom has brought us closer to our nation’s bright tomorrow.”
Schwarzschild’s own ‘bright tomorrow’ would see him write a series of articles for the journal Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility. Over the years he grew progressively more critical of the lamentable situation whereby, as he said in 1972, “Israel and American Jewry believe that the proper response to Arab claims against the State of Israel is to defeat the Arabs and reject their claims, to maintain protectorates in Gaza, Sinai, and the West Bank, to persist in the annexation of Arab Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, to manufacture legitimacy for the expropriation of Arab property, [and] to continue a military government over Arab settlements in Israel”.
In 1975 he wrote a piece called ‘Racism, the Unavoidable National Sin’, reacting to the very 1975 U.N. Zionism-equals-racism resolution that was allegedly a precursor to the 2001 U.N. conference Rep. Lewis found so appalling. Drawing on his experiences fighting racism during Freedom Rides in America, Schwarzschild insists that “the ethnic nation-state is by its nature exclusionary vis-a-vis other ethnicities…The insistence by ethnic nations upon being in the majority in their state, upon creating the state in whatever image they choose, and upon letting ethnic-national values predominate in it, is the functional equivalent of racism…The Jewish state, conceived as the solution to the Jewish problem, has become the Jewish problem. That melancholy irony proclaims the absolute end of Zionism.”
Seven years later, in response to the 1982 Israeli siege of Beruit, Schwarzschild published an open letter announcing his resignation from Sh’ma, and stating that “I now renounce the State of Israel, disavow any political connection or emotional obligation to it, and declare myself its enemy. I retain, of course, the same deep concern for its inhabitants, Jewish, Arab, and other, that I hold for all humankind.” He continued-
the War on Lebanon has now made clear to me that the resumption of political power by the Jewish people after two thousand years of diaspora has been a tragedy of historical dimensions…I now conclude and avow that the price of a Jewish state is, to me, Jewishly unacceptable and that the existence of this (or any similar) Jewish ethnic religious nation state is a Jewish, i.e. a human and moral, disaster and violates every remaining value for which Judaism and Jews might exist in history. The lethal military triumphalism and corrosive racism that inheres in the State and in its supporters (both there and here) are profoundly abhorrent to me. So is the message that now goes forth to the nations of the world that the Jewish people claim the right to impose a holocaust on others in order to preserve its State.
Twenty-nine years later, fifty years after Schwarzschild’s Freedom Ride, his daughter Hannah, a Philadelphia attorney and Palestine Solidarity activist, publicly connected her father’s legacy to her own support for the 2011 Freedom Flotilla II mission and America’s ship, the Audacity of Hope. Calling the flotillas ‘a modern-day Freedom Ride’, she, like many others at the time, drew an explicit link between the two human rights missions, drawing attention to “the audacious hopes of thousands who have committed their money and time to this nonviolent mission of resistance to enduring racism and injustice…they will be armed only with a legacy of the courage of their activist forebears, the moral outrage of a growing worldwide movement for freedom and justice in Palestine, and the steadfast hopes of an illegally occupied people”.
Like Henry Schwarzschild, Rabbi Israel “Si” Dresner was another white, Jewish American who joined the Freedom Rides in solidarity with the struggle against oppression. The self-proclaimed ‘most arrested rabbi’, he was first arrested as a teenager in 1947 for protesting, with other members of the Zionist youth group Habonim (supposedly modeled after the Boy Scouts), outside of a British-owned business in Brooklyn, in response to the British government’s refusal to allow Jewish refugees to immigrate to Palestine. He was arrested in the 1970s for marching on behalf of the refuseniks, and has been an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians since the early 1980s.
“As long as they remain nonviolent”, he says about the new Palestinian Freedom Rides, “I’m all in favor of this, and of all demonstrations of any sort against the occupation…there are major differences [between the two Freedom Rides] of course…[but] the Israeli occupation has been not only a bad thing for the Palestinians, it’s been a bad thing for Israel. Just as slavery and segregation were bad for not only Africans, they were bad for Americans, they were bad for the south!…the occupation has led to a buildup of hatred in Israel, the kind of hatred we call racist hatred- all Arabs are bad, all Palestinians are terrorists…so the occupation has been a disaster for Israelis and for Palestinians…I’ve always been in favor of justice and peace for everybody, for the Jews and for everybody else.”
Nonetheless, following a typical path of ‘soft’ liberal criticism of Israel, he prays merely for the reform of what he believes to be an essentially and originally morally just state. “I love Israel,” he reassured the Jewish Week in an article published in May 2011 (a mere two days after Hannah Schwarzschild connected the Freedom Rides and the Freedom Flotillas). “I’ve been there 36 times. I was married there. Israel means a great deal to me, and I just feel that their policies are self-destructive.” Dresner, who today sits on the Executive Board of Meretz USA, told Rabbis for Human Rights in 2010 that “we should know better than to have Jews persecuting someone else. I’ve been a dues paying, card carrying Zionist for 68 years, and Zionism today has been corrupted and corroded. It’s not the Zionism that I knew when I first became a Zionist….we have to correct it, we have to reform it to change the policies of the annexationist polices of annexing land, annexing people, annexing houses, etc, etc,etc…”
If we can trace a spectrum ranging from John Lewis’s pro-Israel advocacy, past Israel Dresner’s left-wing Zionism and arriving at Henry Schwarzschild’s whole-hearted opposition to Israel as a Jewish state, we would have to place Stokely Carmichael, another Freedom Rider, beyond even Schwarzschild in his through-and-through condemnation of the Zionist project. Carmichael’s well-known drift from SNCC non-violence to Black Panther militancy represents a clear departure from the peaceful civil disobedience of his Freedom Rides days, as does his later separatist belief, which distanced him from even the Panthers, that white activists needed to organize their own movements before joining the black liberation struggle. “Zionism is the baby child and interest protector of imperialism in the Middle East,” he said in the 1980s. “The Palestinian state belongs to the Palestinian people, this is a fact…Zionism took Palestine through raw and naked terrorism…Zionism is racism according to the United Nations, so at this point I won’t even hide behind the united Nations, I know it’s racism!…in no way can I be anti-Judaic, but I am anti-Zionist and will remain so until it is destroyed, because it is an unjust, illegal, immoral and racist system…the state of Palestine must be a secular state”.
The legacy of the Freedom Rides has been used by African-American Riders both to protect American-Israeli imperialism, and to call for its utter destruction; correspondingly, white-Jewish Riders have both asked Israel to be nicer and gentler, and have turned away from it entirely. This makes the stated legacy of Palestine’s Freedom Rides all the more more complex, challenging and compelling. Much has changed between then and now, and the four young civil rights activists, once united in a single cause, have in time scattered across the diffuse spectrum of the Left. Despite contextual differences between the two movements, however, and despite the shifting political ideologies of the human actors who have been pulled in different directions by the turbulent tides of history, the struggle, then and now, remains the same.
On Wednesday 14 September, a rally was held in Hebron to officially rename downtown Shuhada Street ‘Apartheid Street’, in protest against the Israeli occupation that for nearly 20 years has shut down the once-thriving town center,
Israeli soldiers gather around demonstrators, who explain to them that the ceremony is a non-violent action (Photo: Heather Stroud)
severely curtailed freedom of movement and caused for the Palestinians of Hebron humiliation, harassment and persecution at the hands of settlers and Israeli soldiers.
The rally and renaming ceremony were organized by Youth against Settlements, a committee that since 2009 has organized non-violent demonstrations and actions to raise awareness of the occupation that plagues the over 165,000 Palestinian residents of Hebron. A crowd of Palestinians, internationals and journalists gathered at the heavily guarded checkpoint entrance to Apartheid Street at 1 p.m.,waving signs and placards and emblazoning, with stencils and spray paint, the walls of the area with the proclamation ‘Welcome to Apartheid Street’. Despite the explicitly peaceful nature of the protest, a crowd of 20-30 Israeli soldiers immediately assembled across from the protesters and on the rooftops surrounding the site. Rifles loaded with tear gas canisters and stun grenades, they quickly strung up razor wire to block the path of the protestors, though the latter incessantly repeated their peaceful intentions.
Israeli soldiers placed barbed wire to prevent the demonstrators from moving forward (Photo: Heather Stroud)
At a press conference, Youth against Settlements member Issa Anmo told a gathering crowd of Palestinians and journalists that “on behalf of all the Palestinian residents of Hebron we have one simple demand- open Shuhada Street and end the occupation. We are changing the name of this street to Apartheid Street for many reasons. The reasons are- only Israelis and foreign tourists are allowed to access Shuhada Street. It becomes as a ghost town. The street is closed to the Palestinian residents of Hebron…Palestinian residents who live on the street are prevented from going on the street, and to enter and exit their homes, and to get to their businesses. Some families are using back roads, and some other families are using the roofs to get to their homes. Shops have been closed by many military orders, [and] it’s forbidden for many Palestinians to drive on the road. Imagine that you are living on a street and it’s illegal for you to drive on the street!”
At the beginning of the 1990s, Apartheid Street was still the booming downtown marketplace of Hebron, and the commercial center of the entire southern West Bank, as it had been for centuries. Center of a vibrant community economy where Palestinian residents and farmers maintained small shops to sell fruits, vegetables and other goods, it was also the home street for thousands of Palestinian families who lived in apartments overlooking the bustling town centre. The May 2007 B’Tselem report ‘Ghost Town: Israel’s Separation Policy and Forced Eviction of Palestinians from the Center of Hebron’ paints a bleak picture of the desolation inflicted upon Shuhada Street by the occupation in just two decades: “at least 1,014 Palestinian housing units in the center of Hebron have been vacated by their occupants. This number represents 41.9 percent of the housing units in the relevant area. Sixty-five percent (659) of the empty apartments became vacant during the course of the second intifada. Regarding Palestinian commercial establishments, 1,829 are no longer open for business. This number represents 76.6 percent of all the commercial establishments in the surveyed area. Of the closed businesses, 62.4 percent (1,141) were closed during the second intifada. At least 440 of them closed pursuant to military orders.”
Hebron’s bustling fruit and vegetable market in 1990
Israel’s occupation in Hebron has a turbulent history and over the past 40 years, one can discern familiar pattern: The one-sided domination of fundamentalist Zionism and its colonialist impetus, with the military backing of Israel trailing in its wake. In 1968, religious Jewish settlers rented a hotel in Hebron for Passover and barricaded themselves inside, refusing to leave; eventually, the Israeli army coaxed them out and established for them the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba to appease their desire to reclaim ‘Judea and Samaria’. In 1979, 40 women and children from Kiryat Arba repeated this brazen gesture, sneaking into an abandoned building on Apartheid Street in the middle of the night and, despite a lack of electricity, food and water, refusing to leave the next morning. This time, the Israeli army eventually allowed these squatters permanent residence in downtown Hebron, with full military support.
The fundamentalist settlers of Hebron are guided by the religious conviction that they are reviving a Jewish presence in Hebron that dates back 4000 years ago to the days of Abraham, who, along with most of the oldest patriarchs and matriarchs of the Old Testament, is buried at the nearby Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque, which today is a half-synagogue, half-mosque structure, heavily guarded by the Israeli army. They are also determined to maintain their community in memory of the 1929 Hebron massacre which 82 years ago, in the midst of a tense political climate and rising animosity in Palestine, resulted in the deaths of 67 Hebron Jews and the evacuation of the entire Jewish community from the city. This massacre is contrary to the history of the two communities in the city, as Jews and Arabs had coexisted peacefully in Hebron for centuries, a peace attested to by the fact that several hundred Jewish lives were saved during the massacre by Palestinians, who hid Jewish families in their homes at considerable personal risk.
Since downtown Hebron was settled by Israelis in 1980, Apartheid Street and a small surrounding area have gradually become occupied by approximately 500 Jewish settlers (the term ‘Israeli settlers’ would be misleading in this case, as many of the settlers are recent arrivals from the east coast of America), guarded by at least four times as many Israeli soldiers. The process of apartheid over the last 20 years has been complex and gradual, but unmistakable in its intentions. After a massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque in February 1994, in which 29 Palestinians were killed and over 100 wounded by an Israeli settler from Kiryat Arba, the Israeli military began to pursue an official separation policy that closed the shops of Apartheid Street, blocked off the Jewish area, already heavily guarded and controlled, from the rest of Hebron, and sought to remove most Palestinian presence from the settler enclave.
Hebron’s fruit and vegetable market in 2007, closed by the Israeli army
In 1997, Hebron was officially split into two areas- H1, 18 square kilometers, under Palestinian control and containing most of Hebron’s Palestinian population; and H2, 4 square kilometers in the absolute center of the city, encompassing Apartheid Street and much of Hebron’s Old City, under Israeli control and enclosing the settler population alongside a handful of Palestinian families who could not be coaxed or forced to leave. The Second Intifada in the early 2000’s brought, according to B’tselem, “unprecedented restrictions on Palestinian movement in the city, primarily a continuous curfew and closure of main streets to Palestinian residents…during the first three years of the Intifada, the army imposed a curfew on H-2 for a total of more than 377 days, including a curfew that ran non-stop for 182 days, with short breaks to obtain provisions. On more than 500 days, the army imposed a curfew that lasted for a few hours up to an entire day.”
In response to the military crackdown, which began in the 1990s and reached a feverish pitch in the 2000s, the vast majority of Palestinian apartments and storefronts in Apartheid Street have either been voluntarily abandoned or forcibly emptied out. Today, what was once a booming marketplace is now, indeed, a ghost town, traversed only by settlers, Israeli soldiers, and the occasional Palestinian who holds the proper permit.
“I was born just 50 meters from here”, says Issa Anmo, sitting in the office of the Christian Peacemaker’s Team on the border of H-1, “and I am not allowed to visit the house where I was born, I am not allowed to go back to my neighborhood to smell my flowers. At the same time, the settlers can do what they want inside my house!…why are they allowed and I am not allowed? They are civilians and I am a civilian! Why am I not allowed? Is their blood blue and my blood is dark, is black?…This is apartheid. Nobody can argue [with] me if it is apartheid or not.”
The 14 September rally, like many others held over the years, was meant to highlight this unjust and oppressive state of affairs and indeed, the disproportionate Israeli army presence at the explicitly peaceful rally itself highlighted the reality of everyday life for the Palestinian population of Hebron. “It was just a rally to explain what is happening in Hebron. At the beginning we were afraid we could not send out the message to explain what we were suffering from, but then the army and the Israeli police came and they put up the barbed wire and detained us, and prevented us from doing a civil right. They showed exactly what it means, that we are suffering from the apartheid and inequality in Hebron…I’m not happy the police came, but they showed the real face of the occupation, this is a reality.”
The rally also intended to highlight the resolve of the Palestinian people, and the fear of the Israelis, toward the upcoming September initiative at the UN. Says Issa, “it’s very connected to September…the Palestinians are suffering from occupation, from settlements, and from apartheid. And this activity was concentrating on apartheid, to tell the world look, there is a problem here! We do not want you to stand against Israel, we want you to stand against apartheid, against occupation, against the settlements. We are not asking people to stand against Israel or say anything bad about Israel, we are just asking them to stand with us against the occupation, against apartheid and against the settlements which are destroying our own lives and violating all our human lives.”
Not all Palestinians at the rally, however, were pleased that Apartheid Street was officially receiving a new name. Said resident Azmi Ah- Shouki, “I don’t want to change the name of Shuhada Street, because this name has a relationship with the history and suffering of the Palestinian people. We want the occupation to end and we are here always. The cccupation makes apartheid, but we are Shuhada Street.” Shuhada Street means ‘The Martyr’s Street’ in Arabic, and recalls the memory of those murdered at the Ibrahimi mosque during the massacre of 1994. A small faction of Palestinians showed up at the rally to oppose the decision, and later in the day the group partially covered many of the ‘Welcome to Apartheid Street’ wall stencils with black spray paint.
Issa, however, along with other members of Youth against Settlements, remains steadfast. “[These people don’t] know what apartheid means, that is the point. We need to educate the people more about apartheid. We are not changing the name really, we are just explaining, giving a description for the street, that it is an apartheid street. [The name is] officially changed, but it’s not a big change. Finish the apartheid, then it will be the same name [Shuhada Street] again”.
Walking away from the entrance to Apartheid Street as the rally dissipated, passing the endless storefronts of the Palestinian people of Hebron as he made his way through the crowded, narrow corridors of the Old City, Badia Dwaik, Deputy Coordinator of Youth against Settlements, expressed perfectly the prevailing feeling of the day- “We did many protests and demonstrations before, but it is important to get attention from the world media. I am happy because we announced this to raise awareness that it is now Apartheid Street. The message is rich, so I am happy.”